Making His Mark: Bill Samuels Jr.

    Like Jazz and baseball, bourbon is uniquely American.  Chances are that, when you think Bourbon, you think Kentucky.  And, when you think Kentucky, you may think Maker's Mark.

    Until his retirement in 2011 the man behind the brand -- and the son of its founder -- Bill Samuels Jr. was president and CEO of Maker's Mark in Loretto, Kentucky.  Today, with his son Rob now running the company, Bill holds the title 'chairman emeritus,' and travels the world telling the family's story.

Meet your maker. Chairman emeritus of Maker's Mark, Bill Samuels Jr.

     The Samuels' distilling bloodline actually dates back to the American Revolutionary War. "My first memory of a great distiller was being Jim Beam's godson," Bill, Jr. told me while visiting Minneapolis in April 2017.  "He was our next-door neighbor, he was my grandfather's friend, and I got to play with him every afternoon after kindergarten and first grade and second grade."

     Bill Samuels Sr. founded Maker's Mark when he purchased the Burks family distillery in the 1950s.

    "This really was his retirement hobby. He was really focused on creating a bourbon that tasted good, and then mom took over with the package designs.  It was the two of them: she worked on the outside, he worked on the inside, and it got discovered in the early 80s.  Lo and behold, bourbon went from swill to swell" after that.

     A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal put the local brand on the worldwide stage, and it's been growing since.

     "We still make Maker's in exactly the same batch size, in exactly the same way with the same ingredients that we did when we started in 1954.  It's just we make more batches. But, always grain from the same farm, always the underground spring water..."

     In his time as CEO, Bill Jr. knew his primary job was to maintain the integrity of the product his family had create; but he knew he also had to innovate.

It had to be yummy.

     "Right before I retired I had this idea that it would be interesting to explore different flavors within the Maker's DNA, and we started on this little idea of utilizing a process and an innovation used by the wine industry."  That process consists of "...adding flavor staves to [the] wine barrels and cooking those flavor stays in very unique ways," to impart additional complex flavors.

     "That led to [Maker's] 46, and that was my retirement project."  It starts as fully-mature Maker's Mark but then spends a few extra months aging in what are called "finishing barrels," constructed with flavoring staves.  Samuels says he believes that the wood used in the barrels provides "about 50% of the flavor."

     When designing Maker's 46, Samuels determined that the finished product had to adhere to three rules.

WATCH: Mike Augustyniak's full interview with Bill Samuels Jr.

     First. "Whatever we did it had to be yummy."

     Second. "We wanted to ramp up -- intensify -- the flavors already existing in Maker's."

     Third was a long, smooth finish; aimed at what Samuels said was a focal point for critics of the original Maker's Mark.

     The resulting Maker's 46 wasn't just the first new Maker's Mark recipe in 50 years; it also received critical acclaim, and set the path for the company's future growth.

     Today, Bill Jr. isn't the only person who can make a custom barrel of Maker's Mark.  The company's new "Private Select" program allows the brand's premium customers to make their own barrel of bourbon, utilizing the same technique that creates Maker's 46 .

     As of now, three outlets in the Twin Cities have a barrel of Maker's Mark Private Select on site: Bellecour in Wayzata, Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis, and the Blue Plate restaurants Mercury Dining Room And Rail, The Lowry, the Freehouse.  Watch Mike's Mix next week (June 24th) to see how this one-of-a-kind bourbon is used in cocktails.